The latest letter from Nick Clegg to party supporters takes us behind the scenes of the Coalition’s negotiations over how best to help families with the cost of childcare. He dismisses newspaper gossip of splits in the ‘Quad’ as “total nonsense”, before setting out the principles that have guided their decision-making — focusing help on low- and middle-income families, and especially those with kids under 3 who don’t qualify for the current free 15 hours’ early education provision. Here’s Nick’s letter in full…
You’ll often hear politicians say, “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.” There’s not the time to correct every inaccuracy but when a mistake becomes received wisdom and gets repeated again and again, it’s worth putting things straight.
Like on the Government plans to help families with the cost of childcare.
You’ll know by now that this is a topic incredibly close to my heart. Making sure all families, and mothers in particular, can afford to work is important for our economy and for our society. That’s why I ensured we found the money to up the hours of free childcare for 3-year-olds from 12.5 to 15 back in 2010, why we’re introducing free care for nearly half of all two-year-olds, and why we’re changing benefit rules so you can claim childcare help for every hour you work if you need to.
So you can imagine my surprise when I started reading that there’s a major split between us and the Conservatives on this. Stories of fights and red lines and arguments abound and of the Liberal Democrats holding things up because we refuse to offer help to any but the very poorest families. Total nonsense.
While of course coalition negotiations can at times be tough and even fractious, the truth is on the issue of childcare that hasn’t been the case at all. Let me tell you what’s really been going on for the last nine months or so.
Late last spring, the Quad (that’s me, the PM, Danny Alexander and the Chancellor) sat down to look for new policies in some areas. We were united: we wanted new ideas. So we sent policy advisers away to develop proposals in some key areas, from pensions to civil liberties, from roads investment to house building. And right from the start the one thing all of us wanted to see the most was a new proposal to help working families who struggle with childcare.
Because everyone knows that the cost of childcare is a big worry for many families.
We will make an announcement on exactly how we want to make things easier in the next few weeks. But I can tell you we’ve looked at about fifteen different alternatives, from vouchers to cashback, from more free hours to childcare loans (that’s the one we liked least!). And as we assessed each option our question was this:
Will this fill the gaps in the current system to make sure mums or dads who want to go out to work can afford to do so without seeing every penny disappear in childcare costs?
If we want to help the working families who struggle with childcare costs, then we don’t need to help people earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. But we do need to help families on middle incomes, especially those with very young children who don’t yet qualify for the free hours that start at 3 years old.
If you’ve got two children under 3 in nursery, you need to earn about £24,000 just to pay the fees every month – and the average full time salary for a woman is actually less than that, at just £23,100. No wonder lots of mothers (and too often it is mothers) feel that going back to work is simply not worth it.
I think as a society we can do better than this. And while people on the lowest wages of course need the most help, the system as a whole has to help everyone who struggles. And that’s a lot more than just people on below-average incomes.
Of course when there is very little money to go around it’s tricky finding the savings needed to fund new childcare help. No doubt when we make our announcement, some people will say it doesn’t go far enough. But I am clear we will do the best we can with the limited funds we’ve got.
So the next time you read in the papers that we are not in favour of helping middle income families, don’t believe it. And the next time you hear someone mention the cost of childcare, tell them: the Liberal Democrats want to build a stronger economy and a fairer society and that means enabling everyone, including working parents with young children, to get on in life.
That’s what I’ve been arguing behind the closed doors in Government. It’s what I’ve been arguing in public. And it’s what we’re about to deliver.
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* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from May 2007 to Jan 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.